Letter to Home Office second permanent secretary over new Covid-19 rules

24 Sep 2020

Dear Shona,

Return to Workplace plans and failed Government COVID-19 strategy

We are writing this open letter on behalf of the PCS union Home Office group with regard to the Prime Ministers’ announcement on 22 September concerning a change in government guidance and regulations on COVID-19 related safety matters.

Your joint statement with the Permanent Secretary to staff issued on 22 September was therefore both disappointing and alarming in equal measure. Firstly we feel you have misinterpreted the new government advice and secondly your stated intention to plough ahead with increasing staff numbers into offices under phase 3 and 4 of the Home Office return to work (RTW) protocols we believe is contrary to the government message and irresponsible in that by doing so you pose increased dangers to employees and the wider public. 

The new government advice states:

To help contain the virus, office workers who can work effectively from home should do so over the winter. Where an employer, in consultation with their employee, judges an employee can carry out their normal duties from home they should do so. Public sector employees working in essential services, including educational settings, should continue to go into work where necessary. Anyone else who cannot work from home should go to their place of work. The risk of transmission can be substantially reduced if COVID-19 secure guidelines are followed closely. Extra consideration should be given to those people at higher risk.

Your message to staff states:

“changing the guidance to ask people to work from home where they can, where their job does not involve the delivery of public services.”

The government advice refers to working from offices on delivery of ‘essential services’ not simply ‘public services’. This is a misinterpretation of the advice and is misleading. Where staff can work from home they should do so irrespective of whether that is public sector or private sector work.

Your message to Home Office staff continued:

We will need to continue to implement our phased return to our workplaces to enable the Department to deliver the very best services for citizens.

At a time where COVID-19 infection is spreading exponentially and the government have been forced to introduce new measures PCS believe it is both dangerous and irresponsible of the Home Office to look to increase numbers of staff coming into offices at this time and call for an immediate halt to these plans.

In line with government advice and on safety grounds PCS will be advising members to work from home where they can and we expect the Home Office to facilitate this.

PCS wrote to both yourself and the Permanent Secretary on 7 September setting out our concerns with government plans to return 80% of civil servants into offices by the end of September. We clearly set out our opposition to this including setting out 14 matters we wanted addressed.

The government instruction to force civil servants into workplaces using public transport and mixing in large numbers indoors was an irresponsible move especially where people could work from home. This has contributed to the nationwide increase in COVID-19 cases. Over recent weeks we’ve seen an exponential rise in the number of cases of Home Office staff coming into workplaces and testing positive. This has occurred at many locations.

PCS welcomed the meeting with you on the 18 September. At this meeting we again made clear our opposition to increasing staff numbers in workplaces. It was clear then that the government strategy of controlling the virus had spectacularly failed with dire consequences. The infection rate was rising sharply, and we asked for Home Office to take immediate action.

PCS were therefore disappointed that at the meeting you gave no firm assurances that Home Office would act immediately to reduce numbers of people coming into workplaces to protect staff.

In light of the governments further U-turn on Tuesday with the Prime Minister indicating that office workers should stay at home if they can, PCS therefore reiterate the points we made at our meeting and hope the Home Office now will act on these:

  1. An immediate halt of phase 3 and 4 of the Home Office return to work RTW) plans. No further sign off for directorates to increase numbers of staff coming into workplaces
  2. If staff can work from home, they should be instructed to do so (unless for personal reasons where working from home would pose more of a health risk as per Phase 2 of the RTW Protocol).
  3. Move back to phases 1 and 2 of the Home Office RTW Protocol where only agreed critical work that can’t be performed at home is undertaken in workplaces. Accordingly, we expect to see an immediate reduction in numbers coming in offices and other work locations.
  4. Anyone who has concerns about being in a workplace to be allowed to work from home and appropriate work provided. No-one should be coerced in to travelling to a workplace if they have safety concerns.
  5. All extremely vulnerable and vulnerable civil servants, and those who look after relatives in these categories, should be allowed to home work. If this is not possible then they should be put on special leave with pay. They should not be asked to be in the workplace

We believe that the points above do not contradict current government public advice. If Home Office refuse to act on each of these then PCS request in writing whether this is a decision by the Home Office or is it politically influenced, contrary to the government’s public statements.

Further for staff working for private contractors, we believe that it should be mandatory that contractor relief be paid so that contractors pay their employees in full if they are unable to work as a result of Covid-19 or they have to self-isolate; this should stay in place this year and to be reviewed in the New Year. Agency staff should be paid 100% of their wages, not 80% as now, if they are off work or away from the workplace for a Covid related reason.

Given the change in government position, there should be an urgent review of whether all Facility Management staff are needed on site and of the H&S arrangements for such staff.

In his announcement the PM stated that the new restrictions he announced will likely remain in place for six months. Therefore staff who can work from home should be told to do so and the default position of home working will not change this year and that in the New Year it will be reviewed in consultation with the unions.  This will give certainty to colleagues but also to the department. It allows time to concentrate on rolling out the necessary kit (changing systems as necessary) to staff so that the maximum number of people can work from home. 

We look forward to your response and would welcome an urgent meeting to discuss. 

Yours Sincerely,

 

Mike Jones                 James Cox                 Pete Wright                            Martin Andrews

Group Secretary        Group President        Group Vice President             Group H&S lead

 

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